Thursday, March 10, 2011

When #WINNING! is Losing

I felt a little relief this last Sunday evening when I saw that for the first time in days, none of the topics trending on Twitter had anything to do with Charlie Sheen. I'm not much of a celebrity stalker. I don't follow TMZ, although I find their uncanny ability to break a story amazing. I enjoy reading People but I almost never buy it. I've only landed on Perez Hilton's website once or twice. Normally I couldn't care less about celebrity bad boys (or girls). But I've been following Charlie Sheen these days, although I've never been a fan of his and I've never cared for the show Two and a Half Men. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure why I've been tuning in to "news" I'd usually avoid like the plague, but I think it has something to do with his history of addiction and mental instability. Throw in the celebrity factor and you've got a pretty interesting window into how our society loves to build people up and then watch as they fall. I think my interest is less in Charlie, than in how we're all reacting to him. 

I've heard lots of speculation on what's really going on with him:
  • Is he still using drugs and drinking? I'd put money on it.
  • Has he always been like this and his PR people have just managed to make him look mostly normal until now? Possibly.... Probably, actually. 
  • Is he suffering a drug-induced psychosis? I'm becoming more and more convinced that this may be the case. There are times he seems a little too together though so I'm not 100% sure.
  • Is it all an act? Could be, but I'm not convinced he's that good of an actor. Not to mention he looks like death warmed over. 
  • Maybe he's really clean now and the drugs were just masking his obnoxious personality all these years? I mean, check that wedding video from way back when. Charlie has been a wild child for a long time. Not to mention you can be clean and still be in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

The real answer to his behavior is probably a combination of the above scenarios. We'll probably never know the whole truth. Through it all, however, one thing seems clear; Charlie Sheen is an angry man with a tremendous ego and a soup├žon of mental illness. True, he makes no apologies for himself and there is something that feels refreshing about that in an age when celebrities are constantly offering up halfhearted apologies for their indiscretions. But I can't help but think he wouldn't be a very fun person to hang out with considering all the negativity bubbling so close to the surface. I wouldn't want him as a friend, employee, a boyfriend or husband and certainly not as a parent. 

Even though I've been following Charlie's antics, I also feel a little relief that attention seems to be turning away from him already. Which in turn makes me sad to see how easily we dismiss someone with serious mental illness and a dangerous addiction. Not to mention how we mock them. I'm not even going to address the people who think he's some kind of hero.

Our society both loves and hates an addict. We encourage drinking and build many of our most important social occasions around it; sometimes even work related occasions. We put bars on every street corner and then judge people harshly for getting a DUI. We make it uncomfortable for people not to drink. But if you're an alcoholic? Forget it, we don't want anything to do with you. After all... drinking too much is a choice. Right? We hate smokers but we sure love the tax money they pay on every deadly pack. That's what they get for smoking! Drug addicts are just scary. They're bad people and ought to just stay away from the rest of us decent folks. Mental illness makes us cringe. It's so scary. I mean a little garden variety depression is ok, as long as you're quiet about it. But please don't even think about doing any ranting and raving. (Unless you're a celebrity that is- then we will pay you to do it and put you on TV!) Hold down a job, try to act normal. If you end up on the street, you're just not trying hard enough. Get over it, already! Oh, it's so much fun to place blame, isn't it? Feels nice to experience compassion from afar. 

Obviously I'm simplifying a lot of complex issues for the sake of making a point. I'm certainly not excusing drunk driving and alcoholics and drug addicts are no fun to deal with but they are people just like you and I. They have families and friends, and the more you care about them, the less fun they become. The Sheen family has been pretty quiet on the subject of Charlie. Jon Cryer has refused to respond to Charlie's criticism and name calling. Chuck Lorre has responded only in the most minimal of ways and even ex-wife Denise Richards, she of reality show fame, has remained mum on the subject, merely saying that Charlie has always lived this lifestyle. It's nothing new. Family and friends aren't surprised. Charlie didn't get this way overnight. No one does.

The fact is, we don't know much about addiction. We've made great strides in understanding mental illness. But we're far from "curing" either problem, although they often go hand-in-hand. The human brain, for all out advanced medical equipment, is still largely a mystery. Doctor's are still trying to determine the role that genetics plays in addiction and mental illness and it looks like it's shaping up to be a more significant role than previously thought. There's not a lot of money being spent to study addiction. It's not a glamorous field of study. There's always AA. Let them save themselves.

The sad fact is that AA doesn't work for everyone. It's a great organization, I'm not slamming it. I believe it's saved a lot of people. But it doesn't work for everyone. Going cold turkey doesn't work most of the time. Putting them in prison doesn't generally work either. Many addicts lack the life skills they need to overcome their addictions. Many have lost support of family and friends. Addiction is a sticky diagnosis. Martin Sheen compares it to having cancer, as do many twelve steppers and in some ways, it's not far off the mark. Addiction is an illness. And just to complicate matters, there's that element of choice. Or at least there appears to be. But ask a longtime alcoholic if they feel like they have a choice whether or not to take that next drink. Look around at how many smokers have to keep quitting over and over. Ask a heroin addict if they ever stop fantasizing or reminiscing about getting high. The choice is only a choice for so long.

Our society isn't supportive of recovery. Because addiction is so stigmatized, many addicts don't feel they can be open about their recovery and so they may be constantly placed in situations they can't handle. Look at Ted Williams, the "homeless man with the golden voice" who was thrust into the spotlight only to end up drinking again. Almost overnight, all his contracts and financial backers disappeared. We have so little understanding of addition and mental illness that everyone involved in his so-called salvation apparently thought it was no big deal for him to handle overnight fame. The same people were shocked and appalled to find out that Williams had abandoned his nine children years prior and had a rap sheet as long as his arm. Who would have thought a homeless addict might have some skeletons in his closet? Ted Williams has the same voice as an addict that he had as a supposedly sober man. But suddenly some people in the entertainment business have developed a moral high ground about entertainers stepping over the line. Go figure.

And then there's Charlie. The difference is, Charlie Sheen is getting away with his antics and Ted Williams, not so much. What if Williams had attained celebrity before his addictions landed him on the street? What if he had all the money of a successful, longtime celebrity? I dare say his story may have had a much different ending. As for Charlie... who knows what his ending will be? Even if he were to clean up his act, I'm not sure his ego would allow even the perfunctory and insincere apologies for his bad behavior that we like to hear from even the most obviously unrepentant celebrities. I empathize with his family and friends. They are feeling pain for him and they are also, at the same time, embarrassed by him and for him.

No matter how you feel about Charlie Sheen, his very public breakdown has aroused a lot of strong emotions in people. Maybe the best thing that could come out of it is if we start talking about mental illness and addiction. They're two of the largest public health crises facing this country. From them often spring others, such as child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and homelessness. Charlie Sheen is a long way from living on the street, but he's not so different from many men and women who do. He's not so different from the addicts in our own lives, because chances are we all know a few. At the same time we may feel scorn, we should also feel pity. In addition to disgust, we ought to try and empathize. Because someday it may be our spouses, our children, our friends or even ourselves inhabiting Charlie's dark place.

Because when it comes right down to it, there but for the grace of God go you and I.

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